Chapter 1 – The Cycle of the Yugas
An understanding of the cycle of the yugas gives us unparalleled insight into the past, present, and future development of mankind. Sri Yukteswar, a modern exponent of the yugas, and on whose insights this book is based, explains that mankind goes through clearly discernable ages, or yugas. Each yuga changes the consciousness of mankind. As mankind's consciousness changes, so does civilization and human development.
An understanding of the cycle of the yugas reveals that, like two sides of the same coin, the development of mankind is inextricably bound together with the development of every man's consciousness. The yugas are a unique contribution to the world's knowledge because they unite the study of the inner and outer man. Historians have long sought a key with which to unlock the secrets of the past. But the key has eluded them because they looked only to the outer man. Only when the correlation of inner consciousness to outward behavior is made, does the chaos of history fall into a discernable pattern.
It is not, however, the pattern most modern historians and archeologists expect to find.
The yugas describe a cycle of human development that not only predicts highly advanced ages in the future, but indicates that they have occurred in the past as well. The yuga cycle also includes ages less advanced than our own, full of ignorance and darkness, and ages so much more advanced than our own present age that we cannot fully comprehend them. And, as is implicit in the meaning of the word "cycle," we learn that once mankind's peak in reached, there is inevitable decline, and once mankind's darkest point is reached, there is inevitable advancement.
The yugas are a tradition in India that goes back thousands of years. Sri Yukteswar does not base his understanding of the yugas on tradition alone, however. Sri Yukteswar's insights spring from self-realization. His understanding of the yugas is born of deep intuition. Yet his explanation is clear and succinct, and, as he intended, approachable by the Western scientific mind.
Sri Yukteswar outlines the yugas in the Introduction to his book, The Holy Science. Writing in 1894, Sri Yukteswar predicted several developments that have since come to pass—the rapid development of knowledge in the twentieth century, and the discovery that energy underlies all matter. Sri Yukteswar's explanation predates Einstein's E=MC2 by over ten years. These were not predictions in the usual sense of the intuitive perception of singular events; rather Sri Yukteswar's predictions arose from an understanding of the consequence of the change of mankind's consciousness from one yuga to the next. The most recent transition from one yuga to the next was fully completed in the year 1900 AD, just five years before Einstein's conceptions fundamentally changed our worldview.
Sri Yukteswar's prediction, however, was not about Einstein as an individual. Had it not been Einstein who perceived and formulated the relationship of energy and matter, it would have been someone else. What Sri Yukteswar predicted was the inevitability that this knowledge would come to light, due to the fundamental change in the consciousness of mankind taking place at that time.
Sri Yukteswar is known to the world primarily through the writings of Paramhansa Yogananda, his foremost disciple and author of Autobiography of a Yogi. Sri Yukteswar and Yogananda shared a mission to present the teachings of India in such a way that Western minds could appreciate and understand them within the context of Western thinking and modern science. Yogananda lived in the United States from 1920 until his death in 1952. He was a tireless and inspiring exponent of the teachings of yoga, and was able to present the ancient teachings of India in a fresh, clear, and thoroughly modern way.
This book continues their tradition by presenting the concept of the yugas in the context of Western thinking, science, and scholarship. We believe you will find that the simple concept of the cycle of the yugas—Sri Yukteswar needed only twelve brief pages to describe it—has profound implications for both the inner and outer man. For, as you will learn as you journey through this book, the inner and outer man are inextricably linked.
The basic concept is simple. As explained by Sri Yukteswar, in 1900 AD mankind fully entered Dwapara Yuga, the second of four ages. In Dwapara Yuga mankind as a whole can comprehend, as he put it, the "fine matters and electricities"1 that comprise all matter. Dwapara Yuga can be called the Energy Age, and it lasts for 2,000 years. The age preceding the Dwapara Yuga is called Kali Yuga, and is the darkest of all the ages, in which mankind can comprehend only gross matter. Kali Yuga can be called the Material Age and it lasts 1,000 years. The age which succeeds Dwapara Yuga is called Treta Yuga, and in this age mankind can comprehend the "divine magnetism"2 which underlies all energy, and in which man's mental capabilities are highly advanced. Treta Yuga can be called the Mental Age and it lasts 3,000 years. The last and most advanced of the ages is called Satya Yuga, in which mankind can "comprehend all, even the spirit beyond this visible world"3. Satya Yuga can be called the Spiritual Age and it lasts 4,000 years.
Each yuga has transition periods from and to the next yuga called sandhis. Referred to as the dawn and twilight of the yugas, the transitions are 1/10 of each yuga's length. So the transition into and out of Kali Yuga is 100 years for a combined duration of 1,200 years (100 + 1,000 + 100 = 1,200). Similarly, Dwapara Yuga's transitions are 200 years in duration for a combined duration of 2,400 years (200 + 2,000 + 200 = 2,400). And thus you can see that Treta Yuga's combined duration is 3,600 years, and Satya Yuga's combined duration is 4,800 years.
The order of the four yugas, progressing toward greater advancement, is Kali, Dwapara, Treta and Satya Yuga. Adding together the duration of each yuga and its sandhis, (1,200 + 2,400 + 3,600 + 4,800 = 12,000), we see that the ascending arc of the yuga cycle requires twelve thousand years to reach the peak of mankind's advancement. Then mankind's consciousness begins to decline, and the yugas pass through the descending arc in reverse order, Satya, Treta, Dwapara to Kali Yuga, in another span of twelve thousand years. Together the ascending arc and the descending arc, or one complete cycle of the yugas, takes twenty four thousand years to complete (see Figure 1).
Figure 1 – Diagram of the yuga cycle
Sri Yukteswar's dating of the yugas is calculated astronomically, as described by him in The Holy Science with elegant efficiency:
"We learn from the Oriental astronomy that moons revolve round their planets and planets turning on their axes revolve with their moons round the sun, and the sun again with its planets and moons taking some star for its dual revolve round each other in about 24000 years of our earth which causes the backward movement of the equinoxal points round the Zodiac."4
We explore the nature of the dual and how it and our solar system "revolve around each other" in greater detail in Appendix A. But for now, briefly expressed, Sri Yukteswar indicates that there is a star, referred to as a dual, with which our solar system revolves, which can be deduced from the backward movement of the equinoctial points round the Zodiac.
The backward movement of the equinoctial points round the Zodiac is a well accepted astronomical phenomenon. The equinoxes, whether the vernal (spring) or autumnal (fall) are the days when the length of the day exactly equals the length of the night all over the world. Every year, at either of the equinoxes, which indicates we are in precisely the same position relative to our sun, it is consistently observed that we are not in precisely the same position relative to the Zodiac. We are very slightly short of a full revolution around the Zodiac. This phenomenon is called the precession of the equinoxes, and according to modern astronomy, will take approximately 26,000 years to come full circle again. There are various theories current in astronomy that suggest that the rate of the precession may not be constant. This may explain the discrepancy between the current estimate for the precession, which is 26,000 years, and Sri Yukteswar's phrase that it takes "about 24,000 years"5 to complete a cycle of the yugas.
Sri Yukteswar attributes the precession of the equinoxes to the revolution around our dual, and most importantly, he indicates that it is the revolution around our dual that changes human consciousness through the yugas:
"The sun also has another motion by which it revolves round a grand centre called Bishnunavi which is the seat of the creative power Brahma the universal magnetism. It informs us further that this Brahma the universal magnetism regulates Dharma the mental virtues of the internal world. When the sun during its revolution round its dual comes to the place nearest to this grand centre the seat of Brahma—this takes place when the autumnal equinox comes to the first point of Aries—this Dharma the mental virtue becomes so much developed that man can easily comprehend all even the spirit beyond this visible world."6
The last time the autumnal equinox occurred at the first point of Aries was 11,500 BC. At this time, our solar system was at its nearest point to Brahma and mankind at the peak of development. Twelve thousand years later, or 500 AD, mankind was at its lowest point of development, our solar system having moved to the farthest point away from Brahma.
In India, Brahma is understood to be the creative force that brings the universe into being. In this instance, Brahma has shades of meaning. From the perspective of physics, we now know that the center of our galaxy, and indeed this appears to be true for most galaxies, contains a super massive black hole. But more pertinently, it is now also believed that the black hole in the center of our galaxy is not the result of our galaxy forming but rather a significant cause of our galaxy forming. Thus, even on a physical level, one could say that the creative force that brought our galaxy into being lies in the "grand center" of the galaxy.
On a more subtle level, Sri Yukteswar explains that our solar system and all its inhabitants are profoundly affected by subtle vibrations, or the "universal magnetism"7, emanating from the "grand center" (which may well be the center of our galaxy). It is this influence that elevates mankind as we come nearer to the source, and which causes mankind to decline as we go farther from the source. Thus, as Sri Yukteswar phrases it, the universal magnetism or Brahma, "regulates Dharma the mental virtues of the internal world."8
Dharma is another concept from India that can take many shades of meaning. It is often translated as righteousness, but this has more religious and judgmental connotation than is helpful to capture the proper meaning. Virtue comes closer to the meaning without the unfortunate connotations of righteousness; especially if we think of virtue's secondary meaning, not just moral strength, but goodness. But even goodness doesn't fully capture the subtleties of dharma.
These days goodness is often associated with dullness. A common theme in science fiction is to depict a future where war, poverty and disease have been eliminated, but apparently all that remains for people to do is stand around spouting platitudes and being insufferably and boringly "good." Not an inviting future. Or goodness is associated with narrow mindedness. Not long ago, a fictional radio skit (done by a well known radio personality) portrayed a woman, a prominent pillar of society, who decided that she would "organize" her community's Halloween celebration, i.e. take all the fun out of it. She was described, amusingly, as a "good woman in the worst possible sense of the word." Not the kind of person we want to become.
Dharma, as we need to understand it in this context, is more than goodness and righteousness. Sri Yukteswar employs the phrase "the mental virtues of the internal world." The "internal world" refers to our inner consciousness which implies more than outer behavior. People in whom dharma is elevated are alive, aware, creative, intuitive – far from dull and boring. They possess a lively and keen intelligence; deep, calm feeling; intuitive perception; the desire to enrich the world in which they live; a joyful, humorous, and warm embrace of life; and a continuous and conscious awareness of the Spirit within and without. To fully express dharma therefore, is to fully express our highest potential.
As we develop, we increasingly manifest our higher potentials. We express dharma more and more completely. So too does mankind as a whole. In any age there are those whose degree of development is greater than the norm. And there are also those whose degree of development is less than the norm. Today we have wise men and sages among us, as well as those who are considerably less aware. In describing the yugas, Sri Yukteswar makes the distinction that, "mankind as a whole," shares a level of awareness, a degree of development of dharma or mental virtue, during each age or yuga. Yet there will always be men and women, in any yuga, who rise above the general awareness of mankind, who find their connection to Brahma, the universal magnetism, by other means.
The cycle of the yugas is profoundly reassuring in our tense and troubling times. Sri Yukteswar offers a vision of our times as a natural process of growth and development – not an apocalyptic powder keg. It is more like the teenage years before one settles into a mature adulthood. The cycle of the yugas also offers a very high vision of our own inner potential—far greater than you find in your average history text book!
Higher "Ages" in Other Cultures
One might think that Sri Yukteswar's concept of the yugas is unique. It is unique in its clarity, but not in concept. Many other cultures express similar ideas through their traditions and myths. Giorgio de Santillana, a former professor of history at MIT, and co-author of the book Hamlet's Mill, explores myth after myth about higher ages in the past, drawn from ancient culture after ancient culture. The idea of higher ages existing in the past appears to be woven into most cultural traditions; giving credence to their reality.
In the West the best known example of this is the Golden, Silver, Bronze and Iron ages of the ancient Greeks, which we know through the writings of Hesiod and Plato. During Hesiod and Plato's time, roughly the beginning of what Sri Yukteswar tells us is the descending Kali Yuga, which began in 700 BC, the tradition was that mankind was then in the Iron, and lowest age, and that mankind had descended from the Golden Age, through the Silver and Bronze Ages.
The historian of philosophy, W.C.K. Guthrie, in his book In the Beginning: Some Greek Views on the Origins of Life and the Early State Of Man, describes the Greek Golden Age (also called the Age of Kronos) as:
"not wealth and luxury, but a sufficiency of natural food in conjunction with high moral character and a complete absence of wars and dissension. Ease and happiness are linked to simplicity and innocence of mind. . . . Kronos in his wisdom appointed gods or spirits to take care of men."9
People lived very simply in the golden age. There were no wars and discord because they had no possessions to fight over. There was no agriculture but the land produced food of itself, the climate being agreeable.
The clear similarity of Guthrie's description of the Golden Age and how Sri Yukteswar describes Satya Yuga is striking. If this were one isolated example, we could easily assume it was coincidence, but there are many more examples from other cultures: among them, Norse, Celtic, Hopi, Lakota, Persian and ancient Egyptian.
In ancient Persia, the Zoroastrian tradition, which existed around 500 BC in the area of present-day Iran, spoke of Zurvan daregho-chvadhata, or the time of the long dominion. This was a cosmic year that spanned 12,000 years, divided into four periods of 3,000 years. The four ages were symbolized by a tree with four branches of gold, silver, steel, and iron.
Norse myths describe a succession of ages: an age of peace, an age of the development of social orders, an age of increasing violence, and a degraded age of cruel winters and moral chaos, ending in an annihilation called the Ragnarok after which the world is restored.
The tradition of four ages appears also in the Celtic mythology of Ireland. The first Celtic age, Partholon, is associated with the white color of silver. The second age, Nemed's, is associated with the red color of bronze and is followed by the Tuatna de Denann, the Golden (yellow) age. The fourth age, Milesians, is black. Interestingly, the Mahabharata, India's great epic scripture, identifies the same colors, in the same order, as the "colors of god" during the corresponding yugas.
Manetho, an Egyptian priest of circa 300 BC, wrote a history of Egypt in the Greek language, of which only fragments have survived, mostly lists of kings. But Manetho also tells of an age when gods ruled humanity, which was followed by a period of rule by demigods and heroes, then an age of rule by ordinary men. The sequence once again clearly reflects a progression of descending ages.
The Hopi of the American Southwest speak of four worlds. Author Frank Waters, himself a Hopi, describes them in Book of the Hopi. In the firstworld the people were pure, happy and healthy. The people felt one with each other and with nature. By the third world, people lived in big cities and there was corruption and war, and by the fourth world people lived in a hard world marked by duality, "heat and cold, beauty and barrenness."
Ancient Hindu traditions speak of the Bull of Dharma. The tradition involves a Sanskrit play on words; the term "Vrisha" means both "bull" and "virtue" or dharma in Sanskrit. As you may recall from earlier in this chapter, dharma increases and then decreases as the yugas go through the cycle of 24,000 years.
In the myth of the Bull of Dharma, in Satya Yuga, the highest age, Indian tradition records that the Bull of Dharma stood on four legs, while in the next age, Treta Yuga, the Bull stood on only three legs, in Dwapara Yuga, two legs and in Kali Yuga, one leg.
In Sri Yukteswar's description of the yugas, he writes that dharma is only one quarter developed in Kali Yuga, one half developed in Dwapara Yuga, three quarters developed in Treta Yuga, and fully developed in Satya Yuga.
Since both the myth of the Bull of Dharma and the tradition of the yugas come from India, this clear conformance between Sri Yukteswar and the myth of the Bull of Dharma is not too surprising. But an extraordinarily similar myth can be found in North America – the myth of the White Buffalo.
The Native American Lakota (Sioux) have a traditional story of a visit by a celestial white buffalo woman who arrived from the West, clad in white and carrying a pack that held a sheaf of sage. Buffalo Woman gave the Lakota their ceremonies and religion. She taught them how to pray and sing, and how to use the sacred pipe, which she also carried in her pack. She taught that there were four ages, and that in the highest age, the sacred White Buffalo, which figures prominently in Lakota myths, stands on all four legs. During the second age, White Buffalo stands on three legs, and in the third and fourth ages, it stands on two and then one leg. After giving her teachings, Buffalo Woman departed toward the West, the same way she had come.
In the myths described above, we find many parallels, and several remarkable parallels stand out especially:
All of these myths reached their current form sometime in Kali Yuga (700 BC to 1700 AD). Kali is the lowest of the yugas in the cycle of the yugas.
All of these myths express the belief that the myth tellers lived in the lowest of the ages they describe.
All of these myths describe a process in which mankind has descended from higher ages, in a succession from a highest age, through less evolved ages, and finally into the lowest age.
All of these myths describe the highest age as a time of spiritual harmony, physical plenty and greatly expanded awareness.
These parallels, we are told by mainstream historians, anthropologists and archeologists, are only unremarkable coincidences, the result of shared archetypes in the human psyche. Many of these myths are considered by scholars to be origin myths; stories that primitive people told to explain how the world came to be. Yet the recurring theme of higher ages, and the remarkable similarities in their descriptions, suggests more than just a coincidence of archetypal imagination.
If, in fact, higher ages existed in the past, as Sri Yukteswar describes, knowledge of the ages would have been passed down to increasingly less aware generations, resulting in an increasingly inexact understanding, expressed through the language and symbols of their subsequent time and culture. It would be quite understandable then, if the resulting description of the higher ages—told from the perspective and understanding of the lowest age of them all—suggests only primitive understanding.
It is perhaps more remarkable than not that these age myths survived at all, given the opportunity for disintegration over time. That they have survived for thousands of years, across many diverse cultures, on different continents, is a likely indication of their importance to ancient man—and a likely indication that there is a core of truth in all of them.